PHOTO ESSAY/Hela Diriliya: How apparel workers turn into entrepreneurs in crisis-hit Sri Lanka

21 Mar 2023

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka – As Sri Lanka faces its worst-ever economic crisis, a project kickstarted by Better Work-partner company Hela Apparel Holdings is providing a crucial lifeline to its garment workers.


What has the Diriliya experience meant for workers?

“The country is going through a tough situation,” says Head of Better Work Sri Lanka Programme Kesava Murali. “The apparel sector has been crucial for the country’s economy throughout this time as it is Sri Lanka’s largest exporting industry and a major source of much needed foreign currency. It has also provided its workers with a stable job at a difficult time. But with Diriliya we are focusing on skills development and jobs creation for the workforce in the sector, fostering resilience in times of crises.”

Sri Lanka has faced severe challenges over the past few years. The 2019 Sri Lanka Easter bombings across several cities were followed by the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. The ensuing negative impact was further exacerbated by the economic crisis that engulfed the country starting in 2019.

Shortage of foreign currency, spiralling inflation, rising costs, shortage of food, fuel, medicine and electricity have made the life of Sri Lankans extremely hard. The Diriliya project helped provide an additional income and psychological support to the workers and their families through the provision of financial and social stability.

Through Diriliya, the company’s workers are equipped with vocational training and targeted resources based on each of their projects as well as the technical, legal and financial know-how to establish their businesses. Their family members often join them in attending the courses and eventually set up a new family business together.

Attendees are supported to work on their entrepreneurial mindset, while being given the knowledge to start a business from scratch, including the development of a business model. They are eventually offered a platform to sell their products at the Hela Diriya Pola ” a factory-based marketplace. Manufacturing spans bamboo household goods, food, needle work, dress making and pottery, among others.

Participants are earning between 50-65 percent of their monthly wage thanks to their new businesses, a result that is making a clear impact on their lives and their families.

Why is the Diriliya programme so crucial now?

The minimum monthly wage for workers in Sri Lanka is 16,500 Sri Lankan Rupees (around US$ 45), while the average monthly salary for garment workers is 35,000 Sri Lankan Rupees (around US$ 95). Such payments are proving challenging amid the currency’s stark depreciation. Workers are faced with hard choices. For instance, in families with more than one child, parents are often forced to decide who they send to school.

Sri Lanka’s cost of food in December 2022 rose 64 percent from a year earlier. Cooking gas cylinder prices have almost quadrupled since the beginning of the crisis shooting up from some US$3.4 to about US$12—an increase of around 350%.

A World Food Programme (WFP) survey indicates 86 percent of families in Sri Lanka are resorting to at least one coping mechanism, including eating less, eating less nutritious food and skipping meals altogether.

This has triggered a vast exodus of local professionals relocating to the European Union, the U.S. and Australia.

“Sri Lanka’s brain drain has been going on for the past 30 years. However, the rate of migration we are seeing today is unprecedented,” says Hela Clothing Adviser for Group Management Committee Udena Wickremesooriya. “But apparel workers don’t have the qualifications nor the economic means to leave the country. They are the ones who are remaining and need to be taken care of as they lack any other options.”

Based on its 30-years of experience in the garment sector, Hela Apparel Holdings has grown to employ about 20,000 people across Sri Lanka, Egypt and Ethiopia, of whom 8,500 are based in the island nation. Female employees make up three quarters of the overall workforce.

“Sri Lankans are risk takers. Most of our economy is run by women, either being employed in the local apparel and tea industries or as migrant workers,” Wickremesooriya says. “This project was initially thought to help generate additional income. But when the crisis hit, it became even more meaningful and relevant to the workforce, the company and the country”.

Better Work Sri Lanka’s Murali agrees, stressing on the fact that Diriliya is a great practice that is temporarily helping workers and their families cope with the ongoing economic downturn. Better Work would like to use the Hela model and expand it at a national level through its network of factories, eventually transforming it into a national capacity-building programme in collaboration with the Labour Ministry.

“We see this initiative as potentially leading workers to manage an entrepreneurial activity with their family members in the long run,” Murali says. “We would also like Diriliya to become an instrument through which the workforce could get financial support at zero interest through their factories, using their income as a guarantee, since access to finance is currently a major problem for many.”

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